Calls to “Do More” in the South China Sea Miss Bigger Questions

The territorial dispute between China and multiple Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea (SCS) is the most pressing geopolitical issue in U.S.-China relations. The United States has responded to Chinese island building by increasing its military presence around the SCS and coordinating with friendly countries. However, criticism of the Obama administration’s approach, grounded on the presumption that U.S. efforts to date have been inadequate, calls to mind a set of lyrics from the anti-Vietnam War anthem “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival:

And when you ask them, ‘How much should we give?’
They only answer More! More! More!”

It is difficult to determine what exactly “more” means given the already high level of U.S. activity in the SCS since the USS Lassen conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in late October 2015. Since then, the U.S. Navy has conducted another FONOP in addition to other patrols involving aircraft carrier strike groups. Additionally, Philippine-U.S. military cooperation has reached its highest point since American forces were ejected from the country in 1991. Notable examples of cooperation are the recently finalized agreement for the U.S. military to set up “permanent logistics facilities” at five Filipino air bases, and tens of millions of dollars in military aid to improve the Philippines’ maritime patrol and surveillance capabilities.

Many pundits and experts have responded to this increased American presence and engagement by demanding “more”. A recent article by AEI’s Edward Linczer recommends increasing America’s foreign military financing to friendly SCS countries, and Senator John McCain called for “more than symbolic gestures” in the event that China declares an air defense identification zone in the region. The overwhelming consensus among American SCS watchers is that the United States is not doing enough to stand up to China, which is giving China tacit permission to act aggressively. By doing “more” China will eventually be forced to back down.

Asking for “more” in the SCS is not a long-term solution. Beijing has been willing and able to respond in kind to greater American shows of force or resolve. The “do more” advocates argue that the United States just hasn’t hit China’s breaking point yet, but, given the importance of the SCS for China and the relatively low level of military hardware it has placed in the region thus far, such a breaking point, if it exists, will be difficult to reach. Additionally, if “doing more” triggers an assertive response by China, then regional allies and partners will likely feel more threatened and demand even greater American shows of commitment. This creates a dangerous spiral of increasing threat perceptions and additional armaments in the SCS.

America’s short-term fixation on signaling and posturing in the SCS ignores questions about our long-term goals. Is the United States willing to risk armed conflict with China for the sake of interests that are more pressing to Vietnam and the Philippines? Does “doing more” carry downsides that will make America’s long-term position in the SCS more difficult to maintain? These are the kinds of strategic questions that need to be seriously debated; without such a debate, calls for “more” amount to tactics in search of strategy.